Femme Friday – In Praise of Joan Nestle

For taking John Preston to your bosom;

For the sexy shoes;

For writing femme-butch erotica;

For giving words and form to femme;

For your generosity;

For writing about your mother’s sexuality;

For Herstory Archives;

For your cleavage;

For focusing on class issues;

For being pro-sex;

For surviving;

For breaking boundaries;

For never stopping talking.

Deep gratitude to Joan Nestle, across the generations and all the way from here to Australia.

 My woman poppa

 You work at a job that makes your back rock-hard strong; you work with men in a cavernous warehouse loading trucks while others sleep. Sometimes when you come to me while I work at home, you fall asleep in my bed on your stomach, the sheet wrapped around your waist, the flaming unicorn on your right shoulder catching the afternoon sun.

            I just stand back and look at you, at your sleeping face and kind hands, my desire growing for you, for my woman poppa who plays the drums and knows all the words to “Lady in Red,’ who calls me sassafras mama, even when I am sometimes too far from the earth, who is not frightened off by my years or my illness.

            My woman poppa who knows how to take me in her arms and lay me down, knows how to spread my thighs and then my lips, who knows how to catch the wetness and use it and then knows how to enter me so women waves rock us both.

            My woman poppa who is not afraid of my moans or my nails but takes me and takes me until she reaches far beyond the place of entry into the core of tears. Then as I come to her strength and woman fullness, she kisses away my legacy of pain. My cunt and heart and head are healed.

            My woman poppa who does not want to be a man, but who does travel in “unwomanly” places and who does “unwomanly” work. Late into the New Jersey night, she maneuvers the forklift to load the thousands of pounds of aluminum into the hungry trucks that stand waiting for her. Dressed in the shiny tiredness of warehouse blue, with her company’s name white-stitched across her pocket, she endures the bitter humor of her fellow workers, who are men. They laugh at Jews, at women, and, when the black workers are not present, at blacks. All the angers of their lives, all their dreams gone dead, bounce off the warehouse walls. My woman grits her teeth, and says when the rape jokes come: “Don’t talk that shit around me.”

            When she comes home to me, I must caress the parts of her that have been worn thin, trying to do her work in a man’s world. She likes her work, likes the challenge of the machines and the quietness of the night, likes her body moving into power. When we go to women’s parties, I watch amused at the stares she gets when she answers the traditional question “What do you do?” with her nontraditional answer “I load trucks in a warehouse.” When the teachers and social workers no longer address their comments to her, I want to shout at them, Where is your curiosity about women’s lives, where is your wonder at boundaries broken?

The Persistent Desire; A Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle, Alyson Publications, Inc., Boston, 1992

Every Friday, The Total Femme showcases a queer femme goddess. Suggestions welcome!

Femme Friday: Femme Klatsch! with Liz

Femme Klatsch is a new feature, where queer femmes chat with one another on all themes femme. Sweet femme sisters – chime in!

 What does femme mean to you?

Who are your femme role models?

How did you find your femme?

and today’s question:

Can you talk about how your understanding of “femme” has evolved over the years?

Deep gratitude to Liz for this gorgeous and generous queer femme reflection!

Plenty Queer Enough

“Lez!” It’s 1972 and I’m in junior high. As most of us know from experience, when bullies taunt you, they fuck with your name. With a name like Liz, getting “Lez!” hissed at you in the halls is surely cliché standard. Especially when it’s 1972 and you’re a baby femme who passes. I didn’t know the word; but I could tell it was something really bad.

It’s 1975: I’m in high school and someone snarls “Lez” at me in the halls. I read the thrilling new Ms. Magazine, I know what “feminist” means, I know what “lez” means, and I no longer think it’s something bad. But I wonder, do they know something I don’t? Am I one? I decide to look into it. I have, after all, met one “self-avowed” lesbian. She’s older, out of high school, and we volunteer at a hotline on weekends. I scrutinize her. She’s assertive, androgynous and seems to know a lot. Not like me at all, offbeat girly girl that I am. In fact, she’s the total opposite. Guess I’m not one.

Also, if I was a lesbian, wouldn’t I most likely be in love with my best friend? Isn’t that what “women loving women” is all about? It sounds lovely. Sweet. I almost wish I was one. I try to picture falling in love with my best girlfriend and draw a blank. Nothing. I know I’m not a lesbian.

1982: I’ve graduated art school, I’m working, and I’m in an all-girl punk band. By now, I’ve met more lesbians. In fact, nearly all my friends are lesbians. It seems natural. It is natural. I come out! But not as a lesbian after all. I’m a newly-minted bisexual. I quickly seek and find my first girlfriend, and she’s assertive, androgynous, and seems to know a lot. As I model my new vintage black leather jacket for her, she sadly informs me that it’s a “femme” jacket. “Femme”: I don’t know the word, but I can tell it’s something bad. I’m embarrassed. I wear it anyway. I do like it a lot. (After a long night of clubbing with a friend, I lose the femme jacket and replace it the very next day with a standard issue motorcycle jacket, which I own to this day.)

1989: I fall head over combat boots in love with a strikingly handsome, tall, dark-haired dyke who is assertive, tough, artlessly sincere, and is so far beyond androgynous that “masculine” can’t begin to describe her. When I bravely show up in a modest black vintage dress for our formal date, she gasps in awe. I’m speechless, gazing at her in her crisp black tux, the first time I’ve ever seen such a bold statement of serious female masculinity. She nearly trips over herself to open the door of her freshly-washed, robin’s egg blue truck for me. I’m over the moon, discombobulated, and on entirely unfamiliar terrain.

Neither of us knows much about the terms “butch” and “femme”, but we dance the steps as if we are born to it. Which, of course, we are. I never look at a man again. (A cis-guy, that is.)

1993: This butch and I have broken up. I’m wrecked. I’m thoroughly devastated. I drag myself through life for a year. I remind myself we had so little in common; we communicated so differently; we wanted completely different things. So why was I so crazy in love with her? Why did I want her so much? Was there anything for me to learn from all this misery? Stunningly, mercifully, Joan Nestle explains me to myself in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, published that year. Still grieving my lost love, I begin to understand.

Joan Nestle shows me who I am: a femme. A queer femme, plenty queer enough, descended from a long line of proud strong femmes. I discover I have fore-queers! And I learn that my lost love was a big ol’ Butch with a capital B. I discover I’m a femme who needs, requires, must have a butch. A femme with a voracious appetite for butch. Reading Joan Nestle, I feel the awe I had experienced when I put on my first pair of eyeglasses: the world became jarringly clear in a way I could never have imagined.

(Later, I learn that not all femmes want butches. That’s fine too, though I admit it surprises me, and to this day I don’t understand how any femme can resist a hot butch.)

It’s 1995. 1999. 2008. The years go by, and though I can appreciate being femme, I often wish I could de-program the part of me that lights up for butches only. If there were only a potion, a program, a partial lobotomy! Everything is so much easier with my feminine friends. As a femme, it seems I find little in common with most of the butches I’ve met, besides being queer. I try dating a wonderful femme, and I’m ashamed of myself for not responding one iota to her beauty. I feel like a bad queer. I tone down my femme. I lower my expectations. But I need butches.

And frankly, if you’re single, it really sucks if you’re only attracted to about 1/10 of 1% of the population. So I specialize in settling for the Fine For Now girlfriend, because a good butch, or any butch, is hard to find. I have lots of fun, and lots of heartache. When I fall off the horse, I get right back on again. It’s ok, I tell myself; I never wanted to get married anyway. But breaking up is hard to do. Miserable, actually! And I seem to do it every 2 or 3 years. For 20 years. Until……

2012: It’s a summer evening, and I’m wearing a pretty dress and shiny red shoes. I’ve grown out my curly hair. I’m no longer playing neutral. I look up to see the most dashingly handsome butch; or guy? No, she’s butch. She stands before me, sharply trimmed salt and pepper-hair, sporting an orange plaid shirt, and she breaks into the shiniest grin I’ve ever seen. I will soon discover she’s brilliant and funny, and she’s so masculine that she will soon go by “transbutch”. She will adore my femmeness and require it like I’ll need her butchness. But more that that, we will fit together in all the other ways I had only recently dared hope for. This lifelong semi-single femme meets her butch match at last! I can’t make her my husbutch fast enough.

My femme identity blossoms wildly. I revel in it, no longer seeing my butch-loving orientation as a curse, and I rarely try to fit in with the gender neutral queer majority. Being femme is way more fun than ever.

How did this happen? If I had read this when I was younger and single, I’d probably be thinking sourly, “Well, aren’t you just the lucky one! What a cliché ending!” But sister femmes, I’m living proof that it can happen, not “when you least expect it” as I’ve been smugly told: but when you most expect it. I made a decision to expect the best; the best one for me. I found great power in discovering, then embracing, and finally expressing my full femme identity, and all of my Liz-ness, and then I expected someone else to “get” me, too. I felt relief in quitting the well-worn path of dumbing down my particular brand of femmeness in exchange for maximum social approval. Suddenly, luck happens! Dearest femme sisters, the femme journey is never dull, is it?

Liz Bailey

PS: I love the auto-correct for “femmeness”: famines; fameless; feminisms; feminists; filminess! It’s a found poem!

Every Friday, The Total Femme showcases a queer femme goddess. Suggestions welcome!